Bhaichung welcomes inclusion of Kuwait & Lebanon in 2023 SAFF c’ships
Bhichung Bhutia and Conrad Sangma (right to left)

Shillong: Welcoming the All India Football Federation’s (AIFF) decision to invite Kuwait and Lebanon for the upcoming 2023 SAFF Championships, former India captain Bhaichung Bhutia said the addition of the two teams could spice up the level of competition while indicating that the future editions of the competition could also witness the inclusion of stronger South East Asian footballing nations like Vietnam and Thailand.

The AIFF had on Wednesday announced the draw for the championship in which India is clubbed with Pakistan, Kuwait and Nepal in Group A, and will face Pakistan in the opener, after five years. Group B consists of Maldives, Lebanon, Bhutan and Bangladesh.

Bhutia, who was in the city on Thursday to announce the extension of the association between the Dream Foundation and the Bhaichung Bhutia Football School (BBFS), with a focus on nurturing India’s budding soccer stars, spoke exclusively with EastMojo on several issues, including his transition from the world of sports to becoming a formidable force in Sikkim’s political landscape. Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad Sangma was also present on the occasion.

The 46-year-old, who had unsuccessfully contested for the post of AIFF president, and is now among the six eminent footballers co-opted in the executive committee, praised the federation’s decision to invite the Middle Eastern countries for the tournament, starting June 21 in Bengaluru.

“I think it’s a good initiative because the SAFF championship has always been within these four-five countries, and to bring in another 2-3 countries to compete would be something different and new. Also, the standard (of the competition) will go up. Obviously, Kuwait and Lebanon are not very highly ranked nations but they are still as good as us or slightly better. So the competition is going to be much stiffer, and I think it’s a good experiment to try,” he said.

“Hopefully, we will get more teams later on, not just SAFF countries, but we are looking at something in SEA (South East Asian) regions like Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam – very strong football-playing nations,” he added.

Intercontinental Cup

Preceding the SAFF championship, India will feature in the Intercontinental Cup in Bhubaneswar from June 9, and Bhutia feels that the hosts will have to do well in it to fancy their chances in the AFC Asian Cup in 2024.

“I think it’s going to be tough. Well, again these are the tournaments where India should be doing well because our biggest challenge is going to be the Asian Cup in 2024. So if you can’t do well in the inter-continental tournament which is not as competitive as the Asian Cup, then it becomes really difficult,” he said.

2023 AFC Asian Cup qualifiers

Bhutia, who was part of the national team during their nightmarish outing, including a 0-4 drubbing at the hands of Australia in the 2011 AFC Asian Cup Qualifiers, predicted that the Blue Tigers can finish second in Group B when they head to the tournament in Qatar, later this year.

Ranked 101 in the FIFA rankings, India is set to meet Australia (ranked 29th), Uzbekistan (74th), and Syria (90th) in what will be their fifth appearance in the tournament.

“In 2011, that was the toughest group. We had Australia, South Korea and (Bahrain), and in them, two countries were playing the World Cup and the third one went on to the play-offs. So it was a very tough group. Compared to that, this group is much easier, of course, Australia is a tough team, but the then Australian team was much bigger and better because they performed so well at the 2010 FIFA World Cup.”

“Now the challenge is against Australia, also again Uzbekistan and Syria are not going to be very easy teams but at least realistically, we can finish second in the group,” Bhutia hopes.

AIFF’s Vision 2047

Downplaying the importance of the AIFF president Kalyan Chaubey’s ‘Vision 2047’, the roadmap that envisions India to be among the top four footballing nations in Asia, host one of the top leagues in Asia, and create a vibrant footballing ecosystem in the country’s centenary year of independence, Bhutia said the need of the hour is to strengthen the grassroots programme in the country.

“It’s always good to have a vision but we’ve had visions from all the previous presidents but unless and until you start implementing from the grassroots level then it becomes very difficult. I’m also in the federation now, and what we are doing is to get the structure and the system right. We have the ISL, I-League and other (senior) competitions, at the same time, we need strong grassroots-level tournaments in the states,” he said.

“Until and unless you don’t fund states in terms of having grassroots tournaments (under-10, U-13, U-14, U-15), sadly last three years because of Covid and other various reasons, we could not have U-13, U-15, U-17 and U-19 tournaments even at the state level.”

“Even at the U-17 level, they (the federation) asked two teams to be sent. You don’t do that. You need to play a lot of tournaments in the state and the two champion teams go to play at the national level. But what the federation did last year was, it asked all the state associations to nominate two teams. I don’t think it’s fair. So I think we need to create a lot of grassroots-level tournaments in every state,” he added.

The transition from sports to politics

Well, for Bhaichung Bhutia, a talisman of the national team during his illustrious career spanning over a decade and a half (1995 to 2011), football is undoubtedly his first love. But the Sikkimese Sniper, as he is popularly called, is now trying to find his feet in the Himalayan state’s politics.

Unlike his sharpshooting skills on the football pitch that earned him millions of fans from across the nation, Bhutia, however, is yet to gain the same kind of adulation from the voters. He had unsuccessfully contested the 2014 general elections from Darjeeling and the Bengal assembly polls from Siliguri. In 2019, he once again ended up on the losing side even after contesting in his home state.

Drawing a parallel with sports, the ace striker acknowledged that one has to put in the hard yards in politics too before expecting results, even as he urged the younger generation to take the plunge and work transparently for the welfare of the people.

 “It’s been good, it’s been tough. Politics is very difficult but I’m enjoying it. In sports and politics, you don’t get everything that you want. You’ve to work hard for it.”

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Thank you,
Karma Paljor

“And in the last four years, I have been working hard and hopefully we want to see Sikkim and the entire North East to have good political leaders, honest leaders who work transparently for the welfare of their states and the people. That is what we want in the North East, to have some great leaders and hopefully we can have more young people joining politics,” he urged.

“People like us have come into it and I hope we can motivate a lot of people with good intentions to come into politics,” he said before signing off.

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